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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Football hosts Ohio (technically)

A critical should-win game for the Hoos.

Virginia v Indiana Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

Through two weeks, the Virginia Cavaliers have shown that starting quarterback Bryce Perkins can be a dynamic runner. But with a blowout against an overmatched opponent and a road loss in terrible conditions, there continues to be a lot of unanswered questions as the Hoos face the Ohio University Bobcats, a matchup that still may not provide as many answers as we hope.

Ohio ranks 118th in the nation in S&P+ — compare that to Virginia at 59 (Indiana ranks 44th). Ohio is in the MAC, along with schools like Akron, Bowling Green and the directional Michigan schools. The last time Virginia faced a MAC team was 2016 when they beat CMU 49-35. That Virginia team went 2-10 and CMU went to a bowl game.

The Bobcats are coming off an early bye, after a 38-32 week one victory over Howard, a team that was subsequently crushed by another MAC team in Kent State, 54-14. Ohio is better than Richmond, but worse than Indiana.

As you may have heard, the game has been moved to Nashville, TN. It will be played at 4:30 p.m. Eastern (3:30 local). Entry is free to the game, but if you can’t make it, the broadcast has been upgraded to ESPN2.

Virginia on Offense

Two games, two one-hundred yard rushing performances for Bryce Perkins. We knew he was a dynamic runner, but it’s impressive to see. Passing the ball, however, has not been particularly impressive. Yes, he’s thrown four touchdowns in two games, but his completion percentage is 52%, which is poor. His 6.1 yards per attempt is also quite poor. In fact, his completion percentage ranks 110th in the nation and his yards per attempt rank 100th. Last week’s conditions weren’t favorable to these stats, and there have been a number of drops by his receivers, but he hasn’t really passed the eye test either.

Obviously, the running counteracts the poor passing. But defenses are going to key on stopping Perkins and he’s going to have to prove he can throw the ball better than he has.

This may not be the week that he’ll have to prove himself, as the Ohio defense is suspect. They rank 101st in points allowed, 129th in yards allowed and 127th in defensive S&P. Again, they’ve only played one game, but they gave up 645 yards in that game—to Howard. Howard had 270 yards against Kent State.

Last year’s defense ranked 48th in defense S&P. But that unit lost eight starters from last year, and many of the replacements are veterans guys who were mostly special teams players in the past. There isn’t a lot of young talent on the defense ready to grow into playmakers.

What does that mean for the Hoos? Ohio runs a pretty standard 4-3 defense. The two DTs are both 5th year seniors, but neither had started a game prior to this year. They combined for 8 tackles and 0.5 TFLs against Howard. Howard averaged over 9 yards per pass attempt, largely because Ohio was unable to get any pressure on the QB. Howard averaged just 4.1 yards per rush attempt.

Ohio also came up with four turnovers, which is definitely part of the game plan. This was a key turnover.

Ohio has a “turnover belt” which looks a bit like a WWE championship belt. Like the trend Miami started, the player who comes up with the ball gets to wear the belt on the sidelines until somebody else forces a turnover. Holding on to the football will be key this week for Virginia.

Though Ohio’s defense is not good, their run defense is better than their pass defense. Senior WLB Evan Croutch, the only returning starter in the front 7, leads the group. Croutch was fourth in tackles last year, plus third in sacks and TFLs. Against Howard, he had 11 tackles, two TFLs and an INT. He runs pretty well, and has good cover skills, but at 6’1” 225, he’s giving up size to both Jordan Ellis and P.K. Kier, which could mean he has trouble making tackles on those guys. Croutch could be used as a spy on Perkins on early downs. He’s really the only guy in the front 7 who could potentially run with Perkins. Virginia, of course, wants to get a hat on Croutch on all plays.

The secondary is led by second-team All-MAC Javon Hagan. He was second on the team in tackles, and that’s his strength. He’s kind of Ohio’s Quin Blanding. He can cover, mostly in a zone, but his strength is stepping up into the box to make plays against the run. He’s not as big as Blanding, and he’s not as good either. But he’s a big hitter, a solid tackler, and he’s always around the ball. He’s not a good man cover guy, so if Ohio ends up in man coverage, that’s a place to look for a mismatch. The two CBs are both in the 6’0” 190 range, and both are decent in coverage. They both have a tendency to overplay, looking to make the big play. Some of that is scheme-related, as Ohio is looking to force turnovers (see turnover belt above). That means giving up big plays. Howard scored on both a 38 yard pass and a 55 yard pass. Virginia has better WRs than anything Ohio saw against Howard, but there are still questions about Perkins ability to hit on big plays in the pass game.

Until Perkins can prove that his passing ability is near is running ability, teams are going to start stacking the box to stop the run. For Ohio, that means bringing Hagan up to be an extra run defender. SS Kylan Nelson is also strong in run support, so they might switch those two around. Last week, the weather really prevented Perkins from throwing the deep ball. That does not appear to be the case this week, so Perkins should let it fly. Don’t think that Perkins is going to turn into a drop-back passer. The runs will still be there. Bringing eight into the box helps slow down the run. But it also means if Perkins gets past the initial line of defense, he could be gone. Ohio simply does not have the speed on defense to run with Perkins.

Another factor in the stacked boxes is that the quick screens to the WR that Robert Anae likes to run won’t really work. There are going to be too many defenders up at the line of scrimmage to get a block on all of them. But that play could be used as a decoy to get a WR in man coverage deep against one of Ohio’s safeties. Somebody like Joe Reed or Tavares Kelly would have a huge advantage on those plays.

Last week, the weather and the officials conspired to hamper what looks on paper to be a decent offensive performance. If Virginia can put together a similar effort his week, they’ll put up some serious points. Turnovers will be the key, but if Perkins and company hold on to the ball, there’s no reason why they won’t score 40 points again.

Virginia on Defense

A year ago Ohio’s offense ranked 30th in the nation in offense S&P. They were ninth in the nation in scoring, at over 42 per game. The best defense they played last year was Purdue, and they scored just 21. Virginia’s defense this year has looked good at times, but has also been vulnerable to big plays. Are they as good as Purdue’s 35th ranked defense from last year? No, probably not. Virginia ranked 43 last year, and has figured to take a step back.

In 2017, Ohio finished 20th in rushing S&P and 61st in passing S&P. Against Howard, the passing game was better than the running game, as they averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, but 8.4 yards per pass. Last year, they averaged 7.6 yards per pass and 5.7 yards per rush. Howard’s defense is not any good, so why the change?

It certainly isn’t the OL, which returns three starters from a year ago (and another who missed all of last year to injury). The only newcomer is sophomore OC Brett Kittrell, who played a bit (at guard) last year as a true freshman. The OL is big and they are good as a group as well as individually. This will be a test for a young, untested Virginia DL.

It certainly isn’t personnel, as they basically return all of last year’s offense. Last year’s QB Nathan Rourke, started against Howard, but struggled. He completed just 2-of-8, adding five rushes for 16 yards. After the third series, head coach Frank Solich inserted backup Quinton Maxwell. Maxwell completed 17-of-25 for 233 yards and two TDs while rushing eight times for 21 yards and two more TDs.

Rourke was very successful last year, throwing for 2200 yards and 17 TDs and adding over 900 yards rushing with 21(!) TDs. He averaged almost 7 yards per carry and included a 75 yard TD run. Still, he’s not going to be mistaken for Bryce Perkins for his running ability. They will run the same plays, but Rourke isn’t generally getting chunks of yards the way Perkins is. He runs the system and generates yards that way. He runs hard and he’s tough to bring down, but he doesn’t possess the same speed or agility than Perkins does. On the other hand, he’s a better passer than Perkins, so defenses have to stay honest to keep him from beating them downfield.

Maxwell is more of a traditional drop-back passer. He’ll run a bit, but his two TDs last week came from 1 yard out and 10 yards out. Both were read-options. He’ll run that read-option just as Rourke will, but he’s just not as dangerous. Rourke just had a bad game. Expect to see both QBs this week.

The RB for the Bobcats is A.J. Ouellette, a 5th year senior. He rushed for over 1000 yards last year, but was limited to just 59 yards (on 17 carries) against Howard. Ouellette is a smaller back, just 5’9” 209, but he’s very fast. He reportedly ran a sub-4.4 40 in high school, which seems unlikely. Nonetheless, he’s fast. If he gets into the open field, watch out. He’s not the shiftiest of guys, more straight line fast than change-of-direction quick. The Bobcats do have a bigger back in Maleek Irons, a 6’1” 220 pounder who rushed for almost 6 yards per carry against Howard. If Ouellette struggles again, look for Irons to come in. Considering the success Indiana had with their bigger back, don’t be surprised to see a lot of Irons. He may simply be a better matchup than Ouellette this week.

At WR, the Bobcats have a number of weapons. The best is junior Papi White, a big play guy who led the team in catches and yards last year. He’s small but quick, and has good hands. The other big play guy is Cameron Odom, who had 20 catches last year as a freshman. Odom is bigger (6’1” 190) and can go up and get a jump ball. He’ll still be at a size advantage against the Virginia secondary, but he’s a better matchup than White. White is the guy to watch on key 3rd downs, he’s the primary read and he’s a very good route runner and has a good chance of playing on Sundays. Odom is still young, but has a ton of potential and will take over as the #1 guy next year.

This was Papi’s TD last week. It’s not a great look at it, but he ran a perfect route and it was an easy throw.

Here was Odom’s TD last week. He shouldn’t be that open.

The Bobcats have a very good offense. The OL is strong, the running backs are good, and there are weapons in the passing game. Are they really any better than Indiana, though? The Hoosiers were held scoreless in the second half, though weather and game conditions played a role in that.

Chances are Ohio is going to score points. The offense is simply too good. Limiting the damage is key. That means forcing a few TOs, and it means forcing FGs instead of TDs. Make them earn everything, no big plays.

Conclusion

The relocation of the game to Nashville hurts because Virginia loses home field advantage. Still, they are the more talented team, especially on defense. Ohio needed a comeback to beat a bad Howard team at home. The key play was a 100 yard kickoff return TD to open the 2nd half. That’s the kind of thing that simply can’t happen in this matchup. Again, the Hoos need to make Ohio earn everything.

If the turnovers and special teams are even, Virginia will win the game.

Prediction: Virginia 49, Ohio 31 (Season record: 1-1)